By John A. Farrell, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
Clarence Darrow would have enjoyed representing Tareq and Michaele Salahi, the alleged White House gate-crashers. Darrow enjoyed the bravado and guile of those who played the confidence game. He had a hard time saying no when they asked for help. "If they weren't so agreeable to associate with, and slicker than a regular fellow, they wouldn't be so successful fooling boobs," Darrow explained. According to a long article in today's Washington Post, the "boobs" victimized by the charming Salahis included several unfortunate Secret Service agents, a television production crew, and Desiree Rogers, the White House social secretary who, in contrast to her predecessors, is accused of favoring the limelight at the expense of the dreary details.
Darrow knew better than to invest much time or hope in the proposition that one of Chicago's legendary con men would ever keep a vow made to a judge that "This time, your Honor, I'm going straight."
It was a laughable assertion, Darrow said, for a true con man is incorrigible. Like the Yellow Kid.
If you've ever seen the Paul Newman-Robert Redford movie, The Sting, you know a little about Joseph Weil, aka The Yellow Kid, a con man extraordinaire.
The Kid was a debonair man, with a Vandyke beard, who really did persuade greedy bad guys that he had a way to tap the telegraph lines, and intercept and delay the horse racing results, just long enough to get a bet down. The device that could accomplish this wizardry would cost $25,000, the Kid told potential investors, but the payoffs on their bets would be risk free and titanic.
Having pocketed the investor's money, the Kid would take his mark to a phony betting parlor, built and manned by con men, just like in The Sting. When the victim was slipped the name of a winner, and headed toward the cage to place his bet, his path would be blocked by a phony donnybrook, staged by the Kid's pals. Before the mark could get to the betting cage, an operator would shout, "They're off!" and close the window.
The victim would check the newspaper the next day, see that the horse had actually won, think of all the money he would have made if only he had gotten his bet down, and dream of the riches to be made. But when he looked for the Kid or the betting parlor that afternoon, they both would have vanished.
The Kid—by his account—had a personal code of conduct. He did not prey on the needy. After all, an honest man would never fall for his tricks. "Every victim of one of my schemes had larceny in his heart," said Weil. "They all wanted something for nothing."
According to the Chicago Tribune, the Kid's biggest score was for $250,000—a lot of money in the early 20th century. It came from a swindle that was constructed along the lines of the horserace game—but in this case more than a dozen of Chicago's best con men and women created and manned a stock brokerage house, complete with secretaries and receptionists, that paid $2 per share for stocks that the Kid convinced his victims could be bought for 10 cents. The Kid and his buddy Fred Buckminster, aka The Deacon, worked the stock swindle, under various guises, for decades.
In one variation, the Kid and the Deacon rented an empty building and hired dozens of guys and dolls from the Chicago underworld to pose as the employees and customers of a busy bank, with stacks of fake cash, a line of tellers, and printed stationery and deposit slips. The Kid apologized repeatedly as he and his pigeon were forced to wait to see the "bank manager," but the bustling show that they watched for the hour that they waited thoroughly persuaded the victim that this was a bona fide financial establishment. He handed over $50,000—and was flummoxed when he returned to the "bank" and found nothing but an empty building.
The Kid spent some time in jail for his deeds, but put it to good use—volunteering as a medical aide, learning the lingo, to pose as a doctor when he was released.
Even Darrow could not save Weil, in 1918, when he was caught posing as a mining engineer for the Standard Oil company (in yet another variation of the phony-office scam) and swindling a Ft. Wayne banker out of $15,000. While awaiting trial in that case, Weil and Buckminster and the gang apparently fleeced another Indianan of $110,000.
Americans from all over—a Michigan doctor, a Montana ranchman, a banker from Wyoming—who valued their money more than their dignity showed up to claim that they were victims of the Kid, and the authorities in Chicago discovered half a dozen fake brokerage offices that had been used.
"I am not holding up my client as a saint," Darrow told the jury, in something of an understatement.
But of the greedy victims, Darrow noted: "All these men were out for a pot of gold…I don't see any reason for wasting sympathy."
"If somebody took the money of a poor wash woman it would be something to worry about," the lawyer said.
The jury saw it differently. The Kid, at least, went off to Joliet in style—with gold studs, a diamond stickpin in his cravat, a Killarney green overcoat, tan shoes and an emerald velour hat "of gay and rakish tilt," the newspapers noted.
Weir lived to be 100, and died in 1976. He estimated that, in his career, he made and spent $10 million. I'd like to see the Salahis top that.